It’s a little chilling to imagine that nearly 30 years after Ellen Willis published “The Last Unmarried Person in America” in the Village Voice, the piece might have some readers rushing to find out whether something called the “National Family Security Act” was actually ever in the cards. Sitting nicely between political satire and dystopian fiction, it’s one of the most interesting selections in The Essential Ellen Willis , the new collection of the late cultural critic’s most important work.
Edited by Willis’ daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, the book features chapter introductions from writers Sara Marcus, Cord Jefferson, and Irin Carmon, among others, and is one of the year’s most important anthologies. Flavorwire is honored to present this excerpt courtesy of University of Minnesota Press, and to be a sponsor of the book’s release party on May 2 at Galapagos in Brooklyn.
“The Last Unmarried Person in America” by Ellen Willis
The great marriage boom of ‘84 began shortly after Congress passed the historic National Family Security Act. Though most of its provisions merely took care of old, long overdue business—abolishing divorce, enabling local communities to prosecute single people as vagrants, requiring applicants for civil service jobs to sign a monogamy oath, making the interstate sale of quiche a federal offense, and so on—two revolutionary clauses cleared the way toward making a reality of what had until then been an impossible dream: universal marriage.
The child purity provision, popularly known as the Down-There Amendment, prevents premarital sex by allowing parents to marry a child to a suitable mate as soon as he or she shows signs of prurient interests—“After all, it’s better to marry than to burn,” as President Ray Gun so eloquently observed. (An amendment that would have included the unborn in this provision was defeated on the grounds that it cast aspersions on fetal innocence.) Another landmark is the act’s legalization of homosexual marriage. This was the most controversial aspect of the bill, splitting the pro-family movement into two camps—the purists, who insisted that homosexuality was a sin, period, and the pragmatists, who pointed out that denying homosexuals the sacrament of marriage discouraged their impulses toward decent respectability, kept dens of iniquity like Greenwich Village in business, and played into the hands of feminists who claimed that women didn’t really want to get married anyway. In the end a compromise was reached: homosexuals who swore not to have sex would be permitted to marry, and those who declined to take advantage of this privilege would be deported to Saudi Arabia.
The week after President Gun signed the bill into law, we interviewed a number of the happy couples who had been standing on line at City Hall for up to three days waiting to apply for marriage licenses. The heterosexuals all insisted the Family Security Act had nothing to do with their decision to tie the knot. “It was a totally spontaneous thing,” said one radiant young woman. “We were ready to make a commitment.”
“My landlord was going to double my rent,” her radiant young fiance explained. “He feels, and I can’t say I really blame him, that single men attract quiche-eaters to the area. It got me thinking, and I realized that I really wanted to settle down.”
“It was so cute the way he proposed,” the young woman broke in. “He came over one afternoon while I was sewing scarlet S’s on my clothes—it was the day before the deadline, and I’d been procrastinating, as usual. He kissed me and said, ‘Why spend your time doing that, when you could be sewing on my buttons instead?’”
We talked next to a pair of radiant young lesbians who proclaimed this the happiest day of their lives. To our delicate inquiry as to whether it would bother them not to have sex, one of the women replied coldly, “That is a bigoted, heterosexist question. Why do straight people always assume we’re dying for sex? We think sex is dirty just like you do.”
“We’re getting married for love,” her fiancee declared, “and for children.”
“Do you plan to adopt,” we asked, “or to be artificially inseminated?”
“Don’t be ridiculous! We’re going to have our own. The idea that women need men to have babies is patriarchal propaganda. Do you still believe that fairytale about God being Jesus’s father?”
On June 30, after a month in which clergymen and government officials worked around the clock to meet the demand for weddings, riots erupted in two cities where laboratory equipment needed for blood tests broke down from overuse, and the last shipment of degenerate sex fiends was dispatched to the Middle East, the president announced proudly that the goal for which all Americans were praying had been achieved: everyone in the 50 states and the District of Columbia was married. The next day our newspaper received an indignant phone call.
“Tuesday here,” said a voice that sounded like a cross between a purr and a bark. “I’m calling you guys because you have a reputation for being open-minded. Didn’t your editor come out for allowing divorce to save the lives of the children?”
“Not divorce,” we said. “Just separation.”
“Okay. But you agree that what’s going on is just a little excessive?”
“Look, Mr.—Mrs.?—ah, Tuesday,” we said nervously, “why exactly are you calling?”
“Mrs., my ass!” our caller exclaimed. “That’s why I’m calling. The president is a liar! As he knows perfectly well, since his Secret Service thugs argued with me for five hours yesterday, I’m as single as the day I was born. And I have no plans to get married, either.”
This was news. Minutes later we were on our way to an exclusive interview with Ruby Tuesday, the last unmarried person in America. We caught up with Ruby, who makes her home in an empty car of the Lexington Avenue IRT, at the Union Square station. She was a striking-looking woman. It wasn’t the green hair so much as the fact that instead of the one scarlet S required by law—a requirement we had naively imagined was obsolete—she wore a see-through satin jumpsuit made entirely of scarlet S’s sewn together.
“Come on in,” she said. “Have a quiche. It’s okay—I make my own.”
She was still shaking her head at the chutzpah of the president and the Secret Service. “To think that I voted for the guy. He promised to get the government off my back—what did I know? This thing has, whadayucall it, radicalized me. Do you know what these fuckers wanted to do? Get some poor slob who couldn’t stand the plumbing in Saudi Arabia to come back and marry me, and have Jerry Falwell do in on TV, right before the president’s announcement. The Soviets would shit, they said. Ha!”
“We take it you don’t agree with that analysis?”
“Listen, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Communist! No way! But what could be more communistic than trying to get everybody to live with each other? Besides, I’m Jewish.”
We asked Ruby why she had such strong objections to marriage.
“It’s taken me 15 years to get this car just the way I like it,” she said. “Why should I share it with some asshole?”
“Don’t you feel a need for intimacy? Community? Commitment?”
“Would you call yourself a narcissist?”
Ruby raised her eyebrows. “I know you’re just doing your job,” she said, “but let’s not get insulting. I’m as kinky as the next one, but some things I won’t do even for money.”
We apologized. “Would you mind telling us your sexual preference?”
“Hm. Well, sometimes I can really get into plain old-fashioned fucking. Then again there’s nothing quite like having your ass licked and your cunt sucked at the same time.”
“Actually, what we meant was, do you prefer men or women?”
“Yes,” said Ruby enthusiastically.
We decided to take another tack, and asked her how the public was reacting to her refusal to perform what most of us considered a patriotic duty, necessary to end our humiliating dependence on Japanese moral fiber. Ruby rolled her eyes.
“I’ve done without moral fiber all my life, and I’ve never felt better,” she said. “But try to convince people of that nowadays! I have to admit I’m not too popular. Everybody’s paranoid about me. The wives think I’m after their husbands and the husbands think I’m after their wives. I don’t believe in homewrecking, but what am I supposed to do? There’s nothing but husbands and wives left.”
“Are you now or have you ever been a feminist?”
“I’m for equal pay for equal work,” said Ruby with conviction, “and anybody who doesn’t like it can get fucked. About all the other stuff, I don’t know. I went to a meeting of Women Against Pornography once, but that was mostly to meet girls.”
“Aren’t you worried about getting picked up on a vagrancy rap?”
“Nah. They can’t touch me. I looked it up: the Supreme Court decided I can’t be busted unless I do something, like ask a child for directions. And only two justices have been assassinated since then.”
“But the Family Security Act overrules that decision. It says, ‘Congress finds that the rotten Supreme Court decision allowing dangerous marriage-dodgers to stalk our streets is full of shit!’”
Ruby shook her head stubbornly. “It won’t stick, until they kill at least one more justice.”
“When that happens, will you go under—er, into hiding?”
“The fuck I will! This used to be a free country! They’ll have to drag me away.”
The rhinestones on Ruby’s eyelashes gleamed defiantly. We noticed that she was looking us up and down. “Are you married?” she demanded.
“Of course we’re married,” we said. What was she driving at?
“So they managed to intimidate you,” said Ruby, giving us a pitying look.
“Not at all!” we said hotly. “We got married because we wanted to! We needed intimacy and community and commitment!”
“Bullshit,” said Ruby, continuing to look at us in a way we were beginning to find unnerving. “Are you really going to tell me that getting a deportation order had nothing to do with it?”
We turned bright red. “How did you know?” we said finally. “We haven’t told a soul.”
“Oh, I can always tell when I’m turning somebody on,” said Ruby, smiling indulgently. “You know, I find you quite attractive, too.”
Feeling a little weak, we made an attempt to pull ourselves together and act professional. “Thank you for your time,” we said loftily. “We’ll be going now.”
“Stay here tonight,” Ruby said. “You won’t regret it.”
“Well—we’d like to, but—no. No, we just can’t do it.”
“It’s too risky. Suppose the National News Council found out?”
“I’m very discreet. The only thing you have to worry about is the picket line outside. But a bag over your head should take care of that.”
“No—no, really—” By this time Ruby was stroking our back and kissing our ear. Our heart thumped. “Have another quiche,” she whispered.
Village Voice, July 1981